Steve counsels men who batter. He works for the Men’s Resource Center in Amherst, MA. His work takes him into the court system and the local jail where he runs support groups and endeavors to change attitudes and behaviors in the men he encounters. Steve also is an avid gardener and a cappella singer.
One of the themes that influenced my decision to reject the draft was the theme of power and its effect in the world. Access to power is one of the carrots that is held out to boys as we’re raised and we find power either appealing or unappealing. Most people find it appealing to be given the option to have things by use of power that other people couldn’t have. The reason why it wasn’t immediately appealing to me was because I was in a family where there was a tyrant. My father was tyrannical and abusive, abusive to anyone who didn’t go along with his ideas. He was the classic “my way or the highway” kind of a guy and he was a captain in the military. He was a very powerful and influential person in his world. He was sought after as a leader in many different situations. I was thrust into considerations of ambivalence around power. I knew I could have lots of things if I went for it, and yet, I was the object of power turned mean. I was the object of that and I think it led me to have a really sharp awareness of social issues, social injustice in particular.
I was in a family with a lot of privilege. We had a very comfortable, upper-middle class life. My mother’s family was very affluent and I had the opportunity to see all the manifestations of the upper class life including domestic servants to run your life for you who were for the most part working-class and people of color. I certainly had a sense of guilt from an early age about money because I could see that other people didn’t have it, and again, that – I don’t know what it is exactly – privilege of unawareness that I think children can have if they’re raised up to feel secure. They can just be blithe and not tuned into some of the more intense kind of issues that come up when you develop a social awareness later in life. I was thrust into those considerations without really having a choice pretty early on. It showed up in everything. Everything was gray to me, and I was constantly thinking about the contingencies that I was making decisions about. I had an intense need for fairness because I had been the object of unfairness. I think there’s something unique in someone who has been the object of power. In the work that I do now with men who are abusive and in the domestic violence program, the people who I see who usually get it quicker are people who have experienced abuse themselves. There’s kind of a unique knowledge that comes to us and it really short-circuits that gratification, that thrill, that 0 to 60 rush that everybody likes to feel. It short-circuits the satisfaction that comes from that. I was listening this morning unfortunately to that woman in England, that 21 year old woman who is on trial now for the Abu Gharib atrocities and in response to the pictures of her holding a leash and naked men and so forth and putting her thumbs up, she said, “It was just for fun. Everyone thought it was just a joke. It was just for fun.” Even at an early age had I heard that, it would have sickened me. How can someone find that fun? That isn’t to say that I wasn’t tempted by that. God knows when you’re a victim of abuse you’re going to try to turn that around and turn it on someone else because you don’t know what else to do, but it never worked for me. I always felt sick in my stomach because I felt that I was doing what was done to me. How could I do that?
Culturally speaking, I was definitely to the left. I was listening to Bob Dylan; I was listening to Phil Ochs. Like many of us, I knew the Country Joe and the Fish chant about Vietnam. There was a way in which information got to us through culture that might now come through the Internet or something. I was definitely looking for edgy sounds. I got interested in Kurt Weill through Judy Collins and some other people who had been interpreters of his songs. Anti-war songs just really stood out to me. I was definitely predisposed, I think, to come to the conclusions that I later came to.
One of the pivotal sea changes for me was that I went from public high school to private high school when I was seventeen. At Williston Academy, (in Easthampton, MA) I became very close friends with a fellow student whose father was pretty high up in the government and, at that time, the family was living in Thailand. His father was involved in the secret wars in Laos and Cambodia and John told me one afternoon that the things we had spoken about, if told, would land him on the front page of Newsweek magazine. It really blew my mind to realize that here I was talking to someone who had this knowledge and it could have that much of an impact. He was terrified and conflicted and obviously opposed to what was going on. He could see it. He heard about it through being in the family and hearing what was going on. He was a really smart guy, too, definitely one of the smarter disturbed people I’d ever known.
So I already knew that we were being lied to about this war and I was then introduced to conscientious objection through Quakerism while I was at Williston. I was in school with the children of two Quaker women, Frances Crowe and Barbara Gilbert, who were both draft counselors. I’d already been aware that there was an option besides signing up for the draft, but one of my mentors from before I went to Williston was head of the draft board in Glens Falls. With his influence I also knew there probably would have been options for me to get out of the draft. This was a man who really took me on as a son. He was the father that I would have liked to have had, and I think he recognized that. He had a son who my father liked and we kind of traded. He was artistic and very intelligent and aesthetic. He took me to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and recognized the needs that I had that weren’t being met. He was a very significant person for me. I think he got on the draft board, among other reasons, to get children he knew off, to help out.
While attending Williston I went to a War Resisters’ League conference and got to see people who had a long-standing history with choosing to obey a higher power rather than simply following orders. I want to make that one of the themes of my story because it’s such a poignant issue in our consciousness right now. What do you do when you’re given an order that’s not right? Do you just follow it or do you reject it? I concluded that I had an obligation to not follow an order when it’s morally bankrupt, when its wrong, when it’s against the rules of humanity. I got introduced to this essential idea by older people. I think that was something that was sorely missing in the peace movement. I mean there were a lot of us kids hanging out with each other, but we didn’t have a lot of mentors. There weren’t a lot of older people who were saying it’s okay to do this. You can follow your heart. I think I was incredibly privileged in that way. There were people like Frances Crowe and Barbara Gilbert, some faculty people at Williston and Quakers, people who had clearly taken it upon themselves to influence young people.
I decided that I was going to get conscientious objector literature displayed in the college counseling office because they had information about signing up for the draft in there. This was an idea that came from that conference; thinking about the equal distribution of information. It turned out to be an incredibly difficult thing for me to do. I had to negotiate with the headmaster, who I’m sure was pro-war. He did everything he could to keep me from being able to do it. In fact, he didn’t even want me to go to the conference even though my parents had given me permission to go to it. He was going to try and keep me from going. I remember breaking down in tears in his office. That’s how important it was to me, and he finally relented and let me go to the conference. It was very difficult to get this information in to the college counseling office. Again I experienced the theme of power-over. I got to see that a person who had the power was trying to use it over me. I disagreed with him and his interests were not appealing to me. It wasn’t a kind of simple, “I just don’t like you because you don’t agree with me.” It was, “I don’t like your strategies. I don’t like the way you’re trying to get your way. You’re not listening to me. You’re not seeing what I’m saying. You’re not hearing – you’re not even hearing what I’m saying before making up your mind.” These were things that really stood out to me and it goes back again to my father. “You’re not seeing me. You don’t see me. You just judge me before you even listen to what I’m saying. You strike out – literally.”
As for the lottery, it seemed like it was going to be a way to somehow bring some fairness to the process. A lottery, drawing straws. I guess we all grew up with pick the straw and who gets the lowest, well, okay that’s the way it is. There was a certain precedent for these decisions to be made in this way. That’s about as far as I thought about it then. I certainly now have a very different understanding of how it played out, but I guess that’s the way we were supposed to be thinking and very likely it was used as a means to try and diffuse the resistance that would come if it was done in some way that was more coercive. It would have definitely inspired more rebellion
When I registered at 18, I had been strongly considering being a conscientious objector. I thought that that was at least one way that I could live with myself. I had friends who were COs, who I had gone to Williston with who hadn’t gone to college. But as a result of the information that I had from my friend, John, about the secret wars in Cambodia and Laos I came to believe we were being told lies. So I came to the conclusion that, “I don’t think I even want to be a CO. I don’t want to cooperate with this system at all. I think that its wrong and I won’t recognize its legitimacy by participating. I have to choose something else.” I got a number that was in the two hundreds, but it already at that point was irrelevant to me because I was deciding that I was not going to be a part of that system. At the same time, in the spring of 1970 at Hobart we succeeded in getting ROTC to leave the campus by non-violently occupying its offices. We had a uniquely non-violent community of people who were against the war. We were the coordinators for the student strike because we had demonstrated in Washington, at an early demonstration, the leadership and ability to think reasonably.
It was in the spring of 1970. Richard Nixon announced to the world that we had in fact made some incursions into Laos and Cambodia, and he had that ridiculous picture of himself with rice or something, telling the American people how he had had to go in to keep them from their food sources and so on, which I knew was total bullshit. I decided to send my draft card back to the State Department with the War Resisters League. I had hoped that thousands and thousands of young men would show how seriously we were opposed to this war from college campuses, which obviously was a very privileged place. It turned out there were only about a thousand of us who did it in the entire country, which was kind of depressing, but John Mitchell refused to accept the draft cards when they were sent to him. I thought of it as the war of rejections. We were rejecting the system and he was rejecting us. I believe that they went on display at various colleges that spring.
So there it was. The dye had been cast. I had made my decision. It was a decision that I made because I felt identified with the people we were killing. At the time, I couldn’t live with myself. I felt terribly conflicted about even being in college while others were being sent off to war. I left college after my sophomore year. There were a number of other things that were going on at this point. One was the onset of narcolepsy which severely interrupted my ability to succeed as a student. Another was having PTSD from being beaten. I was trying to come to terms with that in a different way, but there was the backdrop of the Vietnam War constantly in my face re-traumatizing me because Richard Nixon – my father wouldn’t let us call him Tricky Dick, we could call him the President in the house – was more of the same. My dad was completely pro-war. All of his investments in the stock market were in the war machine. My mother was basically a pacifist, but she never spoke out. Certainly we were raised as pacifists. I was always taught not to fight. I was taught to love, to cooperate. I was taught to tell the truth. Even though my Dad was in the military, he didn’t have guns. My father wasn’t a hunter. But between my mom and my grandmother who lived next door, there was a lot of influence to be loving and cooperative. It was just part of the culture I was raised in. I knew my mother did not feel the same way as my father, but she could not have spoken up against him.
I never really thought about what might happen next after sending in the card. Honestly, I didn’t. At that point I was 20 years old and I was incredibly distracted in my mind by other psychological processes as much as I was bright and capable. I think that when you’re the victim of abuse, your talents and light are incredibly compromised. I don’t think a day went by that I wasn’t remembering in some way what it felt like to be fucked over, to have had my light shoved under a bushel. I didn’t hide it. It got covered and the drama of war acted as a constant reminder. I definitely knew I could go to jail for sending in the card. I didn’t know how that would come about or if that would come about, but I was not going to flee the country. I could have worked against the war in Canada, but I felt that I had an obligation in the same way that any young person joins the military because they love their country and they want to protect it. That was my way of being a soldier if you will. I definitely felt very clear about that and I knew that I could come back to Western Massachusetts and be with Quakers and be with older people and be with a community of people who would be working tirelessly to end the war, which is what I did. I dropped out and I came here and did exactly that until the war ended.
I never got my card back. Knowing then and even more later what was going on in the Nixon administration to root out the leaders of the anti-war movement, there’s no doubt in my mind that there were functionaries working for the FBI who wanted to know about me. I was one of the student leaders in the effort to get the ROTC off campus. I was not an unknown. I was within a small cadre of people who were very vocal and very influential. I’ll add just as a quick aside. We exposed an agent provocateur on our campus. Tommy the Traveler. This is part of the record. Anyone can find out about this. He was working for the local sheriff’s department and working for the FBI as one of the many COINTELPRO people who were sent out to destroy the peace movement on college campuses like Kent State and Jackson State. On our campus he got a naïve freshman to firebomb the ROTC office after we had gotten them off campus. They were going to do this all on May 1st. That’s when all the shit happened. That’s when Kent State happened. It happened all across the country. They wanted to stop us. It was war strategy. We saw the explosion at he ROTC office happen and we knew Tommy the Traveler had been involved. I was actually the one who first exposed this guy. My friends all got dragged into the sheriff’s department as if they were the ones who had done the firebombing and Tommy the Traveler was seen in the parking lot by one of my friends. I had already been suspicious of him and had actually tried to get people to turn away from him because he was nuts. He carried a hand grenade around, a detonated hand grenade, and he would pull the pin and throw it to people as a joke. It just seemed really sick to me. He was claiming to be an SDS regional organizer, that was his cover, and my attitude was that we didn’t need outsiders to help us.
So at any point, I could have gone to jail. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I would have gone to jail. That’s how I would have followed my conscience. As I said in the beginning, I was deeply concerned about fairness. I also knew, while in college, the incredible privilege of having a 2-S deferment. I was reading Win magazine from the War Resisters League. I was reading Quaker literature. I was informed. I knew that there were people who were going to war because they had no privilege. They had no out, and I could not live with that double standard. That was also one of the reasons why I left college. I just couldn’t live with it. It was intellectual, but also physical. I felt it. What I was able to realize was that I was not rejecting the draft as much as I was choosing life. I was choosing a higher power.
I had cousins who were in Vietnam. They’d been raised up in a military family and went. They had always presented for me a real image of what it meant—what it would be to be a real man. That was part of the conflict. They seemed to have that talent of getting around in the world and using power in that way. I found it very appealing as a young person and I felt very conflicted by it. I really want to get the point across that as a young person – I don’t want to sound like I had it all together. I was fucked up. I was tortured by this and I did what I had to do. I wasn’t looking forward to going to jail. I was scared shitless by the prospect. I knew it would probably wreck my life, but I also knew I could die if I went to war. I also knew that other people would die going to war, and death was very prominent in our minds, the possibility of death. I have to add that I didn’t believe I had a future. This is something that comes as a result of abuse also. When you’re raised up in a family where the love and caring that’s supposed to protect you is not there… I honestly felt that I knew a little bit of what it was like to be at war because I was being attacked. I was being terrorized by my own father. I couldn’t anticipate when I would get beaten and these were not small situations. These were beatings, brutal beatings and sometimes done in public, and I won’t say that it was on and on and on, but I can think of at least on both hands incidents that affected me. I really didn’t think ahead. I couldn’t even frankly imagine graduating from college. I didn’t know what I was going to do. There were a lot of people who were saying, because of the ecological situation, that everything was doomed. I heard – who was that guy? He was a very radical environmentalist who spoke at our college – oh, yes, Paul Ehrlich – say, “My wife and I don’t even have insurance policies.” So, there was a lot of that word out there. “We’re on the edge of apocalypse here.” Not apocalypse, but annihilation. That certainly fit with me. It felt like wow, shit, that’s what my life has felt like.
So could I support a draft and a lottery to determine who served? In war like a World War II where there was a compelling need to do the right thing; there where people were putting their life on the line because others were having their lives taken from them by fascists. I know there were people at the time who were resisting the war and saw things differently. I know that there was the whole economic thing and Henry Ford trading with the Nazis and all kinds of shit like that going on. Was it a just war? Could there be a just war. I am willing to think about that idea because I think that it would be facile and ignorant of me not to think about what you do when confronted with genocide, for example. What do you do? I think I would have been an ambulance driver, like e.e. cummings had been during World War I. He was one of my heroes long before I even thought about the draft.
Was it fair that people had the option to work the system and get out? Everyone potentially had that option, but some of us were exposed to that information and supported in a different way. I was certainly not supported by my family to make the choices I did. I never even actually talked with my father about whether or not he wanted me to go war. That’s interesting. I think he would have probably had to admit that he didn’t want me to die. I don’t think my father was that pro-war after his own experience in the war. He was clearly traumatized. He came back with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I lived with a man who was PTSD all the time, who was agoraphobic and self-medicated with alcohol. Part of what I must add, because I have spoken of his abuse, is that I have come to understand that at least a good part of the driving force in his need to be in control was how much his life was not in control in the war. And he was a captain. He was responsible for other people’s lives. He was in the South Seas. He wanted to be a skier in Germany because that’s what he was. He was a French Canadian kid who skied. He was a great skier so that’s what he signed up for, and they chose – because he was older and a leader type – to put him elsewhere. He never talked about the war. In my whole life, I remember him once or twice talking about it and convulsing and crying and not being able to even tell me the stories of what he had participated in.
What’s the song? “It’s always the poor who go to war”. That’s Kurt Weill. We know that. Privileged people, for the most part, find ways out. Look at Michael Moore (in “Fahrenheit 9/11”) asking senators would your son go and the aide was looking at him, like what are you nuts? What kind of a question is that? There it is. Our president, our current president, is a good example of how you get out of the draft.